Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Vials, Boxes and Envelopes: De Mortillet's Storage System

As we come to the end of the project and the amulets are nearly ready to be put into storage, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of de Mortillet's own storage methods and how they differ from those we use in the Museum today. At first glance the containers that he stored some amulets in appear to be utterly random, perhaps things that he simply had lying around his office or house. However, on closer inspection, you begin to ask, 'are they'?

Some amulets have been stored in cardboard pen-nib boxes. For example, this one contained ten discs of bread or ‘small loaves’ with religious figures moulded onto them from Copacabana in Bolivia. You can easily imagine that de Mortillet would have had several pen-nib boxes on his desk. In addition, they are well suited to housing small amulets!

1985.52.1735. 1-.10 © Pitt Rivers Museum 

We've also found a number of amulets inside envelopes, such as this one here, addressed to ‘Monsieur A, de Mortillet’ written in beautiful handwriting and with a wonderful stamp on it. The envelope contains a religious picture made from daisies and wood from the hazel tree where Christ appeared to St. Margaret Mary of Alacoque. Again, it's more than likely that de Mortillet would have had an abundance of old envelops that he could slip amulets into.

1985.52.2693 © Pitt Rivers Museum

However, it's striking how many pharmaceutical or medicinal boxes and glass vials de Mortillet used as storage containers, and I would suggest that this is significant. Many of the amulets in the collection have medicinal qualities and have connections with health issues. Therefore, the choice of these objects to store some of the amulets becomes less random, even though the objects are not directly related to the containers they are stored in. We can only guess at what de Mortillet’s actual intentions were. 

Firstly, lots of objects are stored in glass test tubes, vials or jars. This test tube with a cork stopper contains seven fragments of shell from Algeria. 

1985.52.190 .1-.7 © Pitt Rivers Museum

And this glass 'Grains de Vals' jar contains lead pellets from the Holy Land, yet it would originally have contained herbal medicine for constipation. Grains de Vals have been a used as medicine for a long time (as both the jar and this advertisement from 1934 suggest), and they are still sold today. 

1985.52.2279 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Grains de vals, 1934 (Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, de Mortillet used various boxes and tins that once contained medicine or cures for various ailments, and which now are very sought after 'vintage' items. For example, there is a cardboard liquorice paste (Pâte de Réglisse) box containing a clay plaque described in the catalogue as a medieval wizard’s talisman. The label translates as: 

'Liquorice Florent. Vanilla flavoured liquorice paste. Delicious tasting, this paste facilitates digestion and expectoration. It cures colds, hoarseness, influenza, stomach upsets and effectively combats ailments of the chest. Made in the great liquorice factory of Cantarel - Avignon (France).'

1985.52.1064 © Pitt Rivers Museum

There is also a ‘Le Rénïol’ metal tin containing eleven iron pyrite crystals. The box would originally have contained pills or small pastilles for a head cold made up by 'PHARMACIE RENGNIEZ, 56 Rue de Passy, Paris'.

1985.52.2337 © Pitt Rivers Museum

We use different packing practices in the Museum today to ensure that objects are stored in a stable environment. The amulets are stored in acid-free boxes, which are lined with jiffy foam (a neutral packing material). Each amulet is placed in it’s own individual sealable plastic bag, which can also be lined with jiffy foam if an object is a little bit fragile. We stack the objects in the boxes with the heaviest items at the bottom, and it’s important not to overfill them. It is essential to label each box and to make a corresponding note about the location of each object on the computer database so that we always know where it is and it can be found easily. 

De Mortillet amulet boxes in the Museum's on-site store room

De Mortillet used a range of containers to house the amulets he collected. They often seem merely random or expedient, but they are incredibly interesting objects in their own right and some are visually very appealing. On one level they provide insight into the type of things, especially pharmaceutical items, common to French households at the time. But on another level, if the use of these medical boxes and glass vials was intentional, perhaps de Mortillet was trying to say something much more significant? Discovering what his intentions were might help us to understand more about his motivations for collecting certain objects. 


Friday, 17 August 2012

Volunteer is our own 'small blessing'

This week, a chat with our project collections volunteer, Kristyn Maguire.

Where are you from Kristyn?
Australia, but currently living in Oxford.

Why did you volunteer at the PRM? 
I was interested in the Wellcome collection of amulets and saw the job vacancies for the ‘Small Blessings’ project when I was in Canada. I'd already decided to study in Oxford (MSc in Applied Landscape Archaeology) so I thought that if I could still be involved with the project in some capacity I could find out more about the development of belief systems and ritualistic behaviours by getting to see a wide range of amulets and objects from different cultures around the world.

What have you been doing at the Museum?
I’ve been volunteering up to two days a week for several months, trying to fit it around my working life. I’ve been assisting with the project documentation process. The cataloguers Alice and Rosanna take a photograph of every amulet (several thousand of them) and I’ve been optimising these in Photoshop - cropping, colour correcting and so on. I’ve been double-checking the file names to match the images to the records so people access the right image when they’re browsing the online database. I’ve also been transcribing some of the collector’s original catalogue entries into the database - again, so all the information is stored together.

What have you enjoyed most about being here?
I really like the Museum – it’s unique. It’s been fascinating going behind the scenes. I worked for almost two years in the museums sector in Canada so it’s been nice to build on my experience by continuing here in the UK where it’s so hard to break into the industry.

What will you do next?
I start my Masters course in October, part-time for two years. I then hope to do a PhD. I will be in Oxford for a while so I’d be open to any further voluntary opportunities here at the Pitt Rivers!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Capturing Fresh Perspectives

We've been busy putting together the third and last of our podcasts. Our previous DDF project on Body Arts was the first time we really focussed on multimedia resources as a way of communicating new voices and insights into the collections. We talked to a variety of people, many in the form of audio podcasts. This time, for Small Blessings, we decided to go one better and create video podcasts (or 'vodcasts').

We decided to keep costs down and boost in-house skills by doing it ourselves. A handful of staff, including myself, had begun to learn the basics of film-making and editing by attending courses and watching online tutorials, so through trial and error we built our confidence with the equipment and technology.

PRM technician Alan getting to grips with the camera

Who would feature in these podcasts? We wanted a variety of opinions and thought about the sorts of people who might have dealt with amulets. We approached Andrew Graham-Dixon, one of the world's leading art critics, in particular because he had recently done a TV series with the British Museum looking at medieval Christian art; Feclicity Powell, an Oxford-based artist who'd just curated an exhibition of Pitt Rivers' Lovett amulets at the Wellcome Collection; and finally, Fr Joseph Welch, a priest at the local Oxford Oratory Catholic Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga who we thought might be interested in the reliquaries in the de Mortillet collection in view of the substantial collection of relics cared for by the Oratory.

Relics displayed in the Oratory's Relic Chapel 

All three experts expressed an interest in the project. On each occasion we invited the person to the Museum to have a look at some of de Mortillet amulets; we were very grateful that Mr Graham-Dixon drove up from London to accommodate us amid other commitments and a heavy cold!  We then had an open session, sharing what we knew - substantial research in some instances, very little in others - and eliciting responses and ideas that might make for interesting content in an interview. For example, Mr Graham-Dixon ruminated on the eclectic nature of de Mortillet's collecting habits and how many of the amulets captured popular art styles and religious beliefs.

Andrew Graham-Dixon with Charlotte, Helen & Rosanna

Felicity Powell talked about the individual lives and stories each object represented and even brought in her own poignant amulet - a battle-damaged button that had belonged to her father.

Felicity Powell with her father's Second World War memento

Our most recent visit was from Fr Joseph Welch at the end of July which yielded interesting and reflective discussions about historical and current modes of devotion. We followed this up by filming the actual podcast in the wonderful surroundings of the Oratory church this week and capturing the weekly veneration of their relic of St Philip Neri.

Showing Fr Joseph some amulets, including a book of scapulars (foreground)

Fr Joseph examines a miniature crown of thorns and a reliquary

Fr Joseph brought along some useful texts and helped us with our
research into a special amulet purporting to contain a splinter
from the Crown of Thorns (PRM 1985.52.911)

It's been wonderful to meet all three of our guests and hear the fascinating and thought-provoking things they've had to say about this collection. We appreciate them giving up their time to be involved with this project. We're now working hard to get the films finished so they can be added to the Small Blessings website which will be launched soon. We hope you'll enjoy them too!


September 2012 update: These films, called 'Understanding 'Amulets' will be available to view at:

Friday, 3 August 2012

Caring for Fragile Fabrics

These are three ribbon amulets from Bolivia, which were sent to Conservation for treatment. 

Flaking decoration (PRM 1985.52.1726)

As you can see, the gold decoration over the text was flaking off, so I had to consolidate it. This means fixing it more securely to the surface using an adhesive. I did this under the microscope, so that I could watch very carefully if any colours on the ribbon started running.

Stuck together (PRM 1985.52.1729)

Two of the ribbons were folded over on themselves and had become stuck where they'd been painted. I had to decide whether to attempt to open them up or leave them as they were.

I tried releasing them very gently using a scalpel and managed to unfold the crimson one, but the white one was much too firmly stuck and the action would have caused quite a lot of damage to it, had I continued trying. As we already had two from the same area with the same decoration, it seemed unnecessary.

PRM 1985.52.1727

They all have a small amount of ‘shattering’ which is when the fabric becomes brittle and falls apart. This is mainly at the centre of each ribbon around the painted text and image. To stop the fabric breaking apart, I gave it a backing of silk crepeline, which was dyed to the same colour as each ribbon. This was then placed over each break like a plaster.

Once treatment was completed each ribbon will need to be stored properly. It’s best if it doesn’t get folded, as over time folds become breaks, so I wrapped each ribbon around some conservation grade foam and interleaved it with some acid free tissue to prevent any more sticking problems in the future. I then made a couple of small boxes out of conservation grade corrugated plastic to stop them getting crushed.